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golf As the heavy artillery is rolled out to assail the sport, the R&A's chief executive proves he's a dab hand at defusing bombs, writes Nick Rodger

Anchoring, drug-taking, facelifts, sexism?

It sounds like some nautical-themed night of debauchery gone wrong but, in fact, it's just another day in the world of golf.

Sitting in his sumptuous office up in the garret of the grand, neo-classical edifice that is the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the game's governing body, peers out on to a sun-drenched Old Course and gives a reflective sigh. "It's been pretty busy," he exhales. You can say that again. The proposed ban on anchoring the putter to a part of the body, the ongoing issue of the men-only R&A and its selection of all-male Open venues, the cosmetic surgery to the Old Course and the palaver surrounding Vijay Singh and his use of a banned substance. Given the welter of issues that have been battered about with all the wildness of a high handicapper in a stiff breeze over the past few months, you would expect Dawson to be constantly grimacing like a turtle that had just broken wind in its own shell. On the contrary, you sense he actually enjoys the various stooshies that have developed. "Golf still provides huge controversy which is a good thing," added the 64-year-old. "It would be a shame if it was dull."

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The row surrounding Singh and his use of a deer antler spray is the latest topic to grab the headlines. The Fijian's admission that he used the substance that is alleged to contain the banned IGF-1 growth hormone whipped up something of a storm and led to accusations that golf's powers-that-be on both sides of the Atlantic had become complacent and dangerously apathetic on the subject of drug-taking.

Having spearheaded the R&A's drive to introduce drug-testing – it was trialled at the Eisenhower Trophy in 2006 and then brought into the Open Championship as of 2009 – Dawson vigorously refutes such claims. He does concede, though, that the game cannot rest on its laurels.

"I don't know why complacency has been used," he said. "I don't think we have been. We have played a leading part in getting drug testing started in golf and we've never had a hint of a positive result at the Open.

"Some people look at golf and say we are all self-righteous so and sos. This is a reminder that these things are out there. They don't go away and you have to be vigilant. Do I think this is widespread in golf? Frankly, no, I don't. But I'm willing to be proved wrong.

"To find the substance that allegedly is contained in deer antler spray, you need a blood test rather than the urine test that is going on in golf. You begin to wonder if your testing regimes are right. This is going to cause a lot of soul searching and I wouldn't be surprised if there are changes [to procedure] in the future."

Doug Barron, an American journeyman pro, was the first player to be banned for failing a drugs test by the PGA Tour in 2009. Now, the US officials have to decide what to do with a player who has won three majors and was a former world No 1.

"No two cases are the same," said Dawson. "As far as I know, a first offence on the PGA Tour is a one-year ban. I hope he [Singh] won't be treated overly harshly just because he's a marquee player. But that doesn't mean treating him mildly either."

Before deer antler spray reared its head, Dawson was embroiled in the weighty, well-publicised and decidedly messy issue of anchoring. The leading officials of the R&A and their counterparts at the United States Golfing Association came together at the tail end of 2012 to announce a proposed ban on anchoring a club to a part of the body during a stroke, thus negating the use of long putters.

In the ensuing 'period of consultation', Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America, unveiled his opposition to the outlawing before Mark King, the big-hitting chief executive of equipment manufacturer TaylorMade, recently waded into the debate. With all the subtlety of a flying mallet, he urged the US Tour to ignore the forthcoming ban claiming that the USGA – and presumably the R&A – would be "non-entities within 10 years" because the "industry is going to move away from them and pass them, they're going to be obsolete."

Dawson's response? "Who will be here in 10 years time? We'll have a bet on that," he said with a wry smile. "I think, frankly, he [King] demonstrated why you need independent governing bodies who don't have business interests in making the rules."

Both Bishop and King have indicated that golf is now at a point where two sets of rules, one for amateurs and one for professionals, should be considered as a potential solution in the wake of the anchoring affair. Of course, saying the dreaded word "bifurcation" in the company of Dawson is like holding up a crucifix to a vampire.

"I'm not going to attempt to defend the fact that we were a bit late in the day here [with the proposed anchoring ban], there's no doubt about that," said Dawson. "All the history has been towards the unification of the rules and the thing about bifurcators is that they can't explain where it all ends. I can understand why it [bifurcation] is the simplest solution but it's taking risks with the game."

Next on the horizon for Dawson is the Open at men-only Muirfield, where the media's heavy artillery will be moved into position for a sustained bombardment on the R&A's own all-male membership policy. With Augusta National opening its exclusive membership to two women last year, the pressure on the R&A has intensified and Dawson is stealing himself for a renewed assault on that front come summer.

"It's a very big issue both from the St Andrews side and the Muirfield side of it," he said. "If you want a soundbite job on it, then go ahead, but if anyone wants to go into the thing in depth it will take quite a while. I'm girding my loins for that . . . but I'm not quite ready for you yet."

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